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Sunday, September 12, 2010
EUCALYPTUS by Murray Bail
What an extraordinary book. It’s been on my bookshelves for the twelve years since it came out and there was so much fuss about it, and now I can see what they were all going on about.
It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.
The basic concept is simple: a man’s wife dies and he moves to a large property in rural Australia with their astonishingly beautiful daughter. He’s obsessed with eucalyptus trees and makes it his life’s work to have a specimen of every variety – 600 plus of them – growing on his land.
His daughter grows up and he declares that the man who can name every tree correctly can have her hand in marriage.
So it’s not what you would call social realism, but it’s not quite magical realism either. The closest thing I could think to it is 1001 Nights, as the larger narrative is broken up with an endless trail of tiny meaningful stories, which Bail delivers via several different characters.
At first it made me a bit cross. There’s no single narrator and at times Bail’s own voice seems to loom into earshot. I didn’t know where to put it all in my head. I couldn’t see the point of it. But by the end I absolutely loved it for being impossible to categorise.
I’d also decided it was one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. But nothing sappy, a wonderfully gruff Australian version of big sweeping love. It’s the romance of flaking sun-bleached paint, curled up fence wire and corrugated iron roofs.
A taciturn romance made all the more poignant by the harshness of the environment - and the insane ludicrousness of the main storyline.
Reading satisfaction: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 5
Recommend to niece: 7
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 9
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.